Powerful Prayers: The One Who Is Able (Ephesians 3:20-21)

(Note: For a few weeks , I will post the manuscript that goes with the audio (posted Tuesdays) from a sermon in the Powerful Prayers series. People have requested the sermon manuscripts many time, but I’ve always been reluctant to make it available for two principal reasons: 1) I never simply read a sermon, so what people read is not exactly what I spoke. The manuscript might be better or it may be worse but it will be different. And (2) because the sermon has not been edited for publication. With those caveats, here is The Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation III (His Incomparably Great Power for Us Who Believe)

The One Who Is Able

(Ephesians 3:20-21) Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. 

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We began the “Powerful Prayer” series eight weeks ago. Each week, we have looked closely into one or the other of the Apostle Paul’s great prayers for the church. What we have seen has been extraordinary. We have had a master of prayer – St. Paul himself – show us why he prayed and what he prayed. Yet our in-depth study of these remarkable prayers will make no difference if it doesn’t inspire us to pray.

If we’ve learned anything, I hope we’ve learned that God expects us to pray for the church, including Lockwood Church. I hope we’ve learned that praying for the church is critical. So, after two months of hearing about praying for the church, are we praying for the church? Have you prayed for Lockwood this week? Have you used what you’ve learned to pray for our church family?

I’ve met people who believe in God but don’t believe in prayer. They think God is going to do what he is going to do, whether we pray or not. That prayer is just a matter of adjusting our attitudes and expectations.

But I don’t believe that. I agree with Henry Emerson Fosdick, who said: “Now if God has left some things contingent on man’s thinking and working, why may he not have left some things contingent on man’s praying? The testimony of the great souls is a clear affirmative to this: some things never without thinking; some things never without working; some things never without praying! Prayer is one of the three forms of man’s cooperation with God.”

God has made room in his creation for us to be involved with him in ways that make a difference, and one of those ways – the most immediate of those ways – is prayer. If we pray, some good things will happen that would not happen if we didn’t pray. Some bad things won’t happen that would have happened if we didn’t pray. St. Paul clearly did not think his prayers for the church would make no difference, other than improving his own attitude and raising his expectations. If you had suggested such a thing to him, he would have thought you were mad.

The purpose of this series was not to stick more information in our heads but to send us to our knees with inspired prayers in our mouths. The church of Jesus – including Lockwood Church – is of enormous importance in God’s plans for the world and for our lives and we should be praying for it. If we do, some things will happen that would not otherwise happen. If we don’t, some things will not happen that otherwise would.

For example: remember Paul’s prayer for the Colossian’s Church. He prayed that God would give them the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that they could live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way. How we need the knowledge of God’s will in this time. The elders and the admin board are making decisions about services – we need the knowledge of God’s will. If Covid-19 forces us to move online for a time, we will need the knowledge of God’s will to serve our church family, help people keep growing in grace, meet physical needs, and so on.

When God answers the prayer to fill us with the knowledge of his will, there are four enormously valuable outcomes. The first is fruitfulness in all the church’s work. Think of that. We are always doing work – our children’s ministry, family ministry, and youth ministry, just to name a few examples. We are working hard. To some degree, the fruitfulness of all that work will hinge on knowing God’s will, which in turn hinges on our prayers. The difference between fruitful labor and mere labor resides, in part, with our prayers.

Or what about praying for a knowledge of God’s will so that our people will be strengthened? Strengthened people, according to Paul, can endure. They can be patient. They can remain joyful. Our people are going through tough stuff. I was with someone this week who was suffering intense pain throughout our short visit. She needs to be strong to endure. Paul prayed for that.

Weak people won’t endure. Marriages will end. Church members will leave. Sunday School teachers will give up. Deacons will find something easier to do. If we don’t pray, we are not doing our part to help each other.

Watchman Nee said it well: “Our prayers lay the track down on which God’s power can come. Like a mighty locomotive, his power is irresistible, but it cannot reach us without rails.”

In the prayer in Ephesians 1, Paul asked God to give the Ephesians a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. Have you and I prayed that prayer for Lockwood? For First Baptist, Bethel Gilead, the United Methodists, and our friends in other fellowships? What a difference it makes when I get up to preach, if God has given us the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. Being able to receive revelation, to have wisdom concerning what God is like, what he can do, and what he wants changes everything.

The prayer we have been looking at in Ephesians 3, the prayer for strength to know the knowledge-surpassing love of Christ—how important that is in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. What a difference we will make if we have grasped Christ’s love and been strengthened with God’s power. It will increase our courage, deepen our compassion, and make us stand out against the darkness of our society the way stars stand out against the darkness of the night sky (Philippians 2:15).

In one sense, it’s not our prayers that make the difference; it’s the God to whom we pray who makes the difference. He is able to do things that we cannot imagine, things that have never even crossed our minds. His power is beyond comprehension. Our best-case scenarios, our highest ambitions, and wildest dreams don’t come close to the reality of what God is capable of doing.

In Ephesians 3:20, Paul calls God (literally) “The one who is able.” Sometimes we talk about people that way: “She is a very able leader.” With God, we take that to another level.

“Able” translates a participle, the verbal form of the noun “power.” To be able is to have the power needed to accomplish something. The prayer Paul has just made is to the God who has the power to do whatever he chooses to do. His power is limitless, his ability boundless.

There are two other places the Bible speaks of God as “the one who is able” – Romans 16 and Jude 24. In the Romans passage, God is able to establish you – that is, to make you strong; to keep you stable and secure. We are wobbly – both physically and spiritually – but God is able to make us stand firm.

In Jude 24, God is the one who is able to keep you from falling. I have seen Christians fall spectacularly – fall into sin, into despair, into unbelief. What might have happened if they – and we – had prayed to the God who is able to keep us from falling?

Jude goes on: “and to present [us] before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.” But we know ourselves too well. We are not without fault, but we are often without “joy,” certainly without “great joy.” Sometimes we are miserable. It seems impossible that we should stand before a perfect God without fault and with great joy. We can’t imagine it.

Precisely. Go back to our benediction: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine…” We don’t see any way for things to work out, but we see a hundred ways for them to go wrong – a thousand if we keep looking. We just want things to be okay.

But God is not satisfied with okay. He is planning for perfect, planning for great joy. He is able (literal translation) “to do beyond everything, very far in excess of that which we ask or think.”[1]

You want God to get you out of a tough spot. He’s planning on getting you into heaven. You want to avoid embarrassment. He’s planning on bringing glory down on your head. You just want your kid to be okay. He wants your kid to be amazing. And he is able to do all those things. He is “the One who is able.”

You say, “But how? How is he going to do these things?” I don’t know how. No one knew, no one imagined – neither human nor angel – that God would present us without fault and with great joy through a horrible Roman cross—the cross of Jesus. No eye saw it, no ear heard it, no mind conceived it – except God’s. He is the One who is able!

His ability is very far in excess of anything we can ask or think. Listen to the words of St. Thomas Aquinas: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” The first step is faith—but not in God’s great power. We start by trusting his great love, manifest in the Christ of the cross.

Vance Havner put it this way: “…we miss so much because we live on the low level of the natural, the ordinary, the explainable. We leave no room for God to do the exceeding abundant thing above all that we can ask or think.”[2]

Look at verse 20 again: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…” Wait a moment… This extraordinary power is not theoretical. It is already at work within us, or “among us,” as the Greek could be translated. In our church, among our people (even in our inner persons) that power is at work. Prayer plugs us into the power.

Philip Yancy was right: “If prayer stands as the place where God and human beings meet, then I must learn about prayer. Most of my struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn’t act the way we want God to, and why I don’t act the way God wants me to. Prayer is the precise point where those themes converge.”[3] Prayer is not only the point where they converge; in countless lives, prayer has been the point where those themes unite to become a story of power and beauty.

And of glory. Look at verse 21: “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” Some scholars have said that Paul could not possibly have written this because of the word order. They say that Paul never would have put the church before Jesus. But this is to ignore what Paul has just been writing about: the church is the showpiece of the unsearchable wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10), put on display for the great spiritual powers to see.

Besides that, in Paul’s mind, the church is not – and can never be – divorced from Jesus. They are a package deal. People in our day often try to divide the church from Jesus. They say, “Well, I have faith. I’m just not into organized religion.” Or, “I believe in Jesus. I just don’t believe in the church.” Such people’s experience of Jesus will always be profoundly limited for Jesus is one with his church and lives on earth through his church. Yes, the church is unfinished and no one who loves the church is blind to its faults. But Jesus’s love and God’s power are expressed in the church and it is in the church that glory comes to God.

Especially, in times like this. More than ever, we must pray (Colossians 1:9-12) for the church to have the knowledge of God’s will. There is an opportunity in this moment for the church to serve God in the world and we mustn’t miss it. This Wednesday, pastors from our county are gathering to discuss how we can serve God in the church and in the world during the pandemic. We must pray (Ephesians 1:17-19) for the spirit of wisdom and revelation so that we may grasp the hope before us and the enormous value of the each other – God’s chosen inheritance in the saints. We must pray for power (Ephesians 3:14-21) so that we will be strong in this time of uncertainty, so God can fill us – his church – to all his fullness.

Will you pray? Will you pray earnestly, continually, confidently for God’s will in our church and the church in our county and country and world? Will you pray for the elders, deacons, and admin board, that we will be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and so serve him well, so that all of us will live courageously and fruitfully in this challenging time?

I close with the words of the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon. Using a church bell high in the belfry as a metaphor for prayer, he said this: “Prayer pulls the rope below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly. Others give but an occasional pluck at the rope. But he who wins with heaven is the [person] who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously, with all his might.”

Let us win with heaven. Let’s pull together and let’s pull hard. Amen.


(If you’re interested, check out a song I wrote about the One Who Is Able. Romans 11:33-36 served as the basis for the lyrics. Click this link https://shaynelooper.com/music/ and scroll down to “He Is Able.”)

[1] Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, © 2002. Baker Books

[2] Vance Havner in the Vance Havner Quote Book. Christianity Today, Vol. 36, no. 14.

[3] Philip Yancey, Prayer (Zondervan, 2006)

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